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Dickinson’s invitation to Dickinson

My recent receipt of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson) of­fers as fine an opportunity as any to plunge once again into her sea, admiring now the individual drops of poetry, now the ocean they compose, now the one may struggle against the other. Here I encounter Dickinson’s own invitation to her poetry in the light of my existing, if meager, knowledge of what is to come.

The volume is arranged more or less in chronological order, though not perfectly so. This yields the placement of two poems—“There is another sky” (1851) and “On this wondrous sea” (1853)—at the beginning of my renewed encounter. There are, in fact, two other poems mixed in, both written for Valentine’s Day, one in 1850, the other in 1852. They are stylistically quite different from her other poems, and I shall ignore them; I accept whatever perils doing so entails. The first of these poems functions as an invitation to the poetry to follow—whether Dickinson intended it as such, I do not know—while the second illustrates a further aspect of the mood permeating the first. What follows is my response to this invitation. If I have a theme, it is of the dangers of writing one’s introduction first, rather than last, writing it with the audacity of hope rather than the maturity of experience. I say “dangers”, but I do not condemn: I find inestimable richness in the result, and, moreover, am myself writing this introduction in ignorance of just what is to follow.

It will be good to begin with the text of “There is another sky”:

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent field –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

In isolation, I do not think the poem is much—only with eyes trained by reading the later poems does its significance come into view. The surface of the poem is quite straightforward: a distinction between the outer world with its change of seasons, its sunsets, and the more stable inner world. The inner is a model of the outer, only with greater stability, and a positive—so it seems—stability at that: the inner celebrates a perpetual spring, an ever serene sky, ever green leaves, unfading flowers, ever humming bees. It is addressed to her brother, Austin, and she ends by inviting him into her garden. The poem hums with optimism, with confidence.

It also introduces themes and images that persist throughout her career: the inner world as best modeled after the seasons, the bee and the flower, the sunset, the frost. With this knowledge, the poem begins to look like an invitation into her poetry—of course the direct address to her brother remains, but is easy to “forget” by the final lines—since, of course, that poetry is well-described as a faithful record of her inner world. But what this invitation promises is not at all what the explorer of the forest will discover.

This optimism carries over into her poem from 1853—and from 1854, though I will not look at the one—the text of which is:

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar –
Where the storm is o’er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest –
The anchors fast –
Thither I pilot thee
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

More of Dickinson’s themes arrive: first and foremost, life as a sea. The sea is dangerous, violent, unstable—contrasted with the stability of land and Eternity. The character of an introduction emerges more and more when this poem is combined with the last. We get, first, a description of the contents to follow—the exploration of “my garden”—and now a definite sense of direction: a move from turbulence to eternity. Eternity is here situated at the end of life, as what is reached upon death, sunset of the soul in the “peaceful west”.

At first, the poems seem to disagree with one another about the location of stability: the first places it within life, in Dickinson’s inner world; the second, at the end of life, with death and eternity. But the second poem is not espousing the sentiment that life is a burden and death a relief: though the sea is stormy, it is nonetheless “wondrous”. This suggests, to me, the same placidity in the midst of external turbulence that the first poem offers, and thus I see them as consistent.

So we have Dickinson’s introduction and invitation to Dickinson. There is a description of the contents, the task: an exploration of the inner world. And there is the description of the movement, the goal: a movement toward death and eternity. It could not be much clearer. But there is a reason why one is always advised to write the introduction last, after all else is complete. A project never quite ends up the way it is planned from the start—new discoveries lead to new goals, and often contradict initial expectations. So too, inevitably, with Dickinson.

I will bring this out by looking at just two later poems, chosen somewhat arbitrarily. The second, because it has to do with the sea, and because when I first read it it struck me sufficiently that I remembered it upon reading “On this wondrous sea”. The first, because it also has to do with the sea, and because I happened to notice it while looking for the second. So, first, “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –“:

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality –
As I – toward Thee –

She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small – she sighs – if All – is All
How larger – be?

The Ocean – smiles – at her Conceit –
But she­, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads – “Me”?

Once again, Dickinson places herself at sea, only now, she does not sail on it, but is part of it. There is no question of a drop finding stability ashore: there is only the sea, endless, perpetual sea. Nor is the sea still wondrous—or, it is, but not in the same way as before. Rather, it is something within which the drop wrestles. The drop is forgetful: she “forgets her own locality”, cannot see her place in the sea, would be larger than she is, “Pleads – ‘Me’?”—gets trapped, in short, in a harmful egoism, a selfish egoism. The rebuke is gentle: the ocean “smiles”—I do not think it mocking, though Dickinson as poet mocks herself, the absurdity of her conceit.

The shift in the metaphor, from being at sea to being in the sea, makes all the difference. Again, a drop cannot seek stability ashore. The goal toward which she first set sail has turned out to be illusory and impossible, and the placidity with which she traveled has become struggle. There is no purposeful movement, only wrestling in place.

But, while the shift in metaphor is central to this poem, it is not the only way in which the promises of her introduction can break down. Keeping with the old metaphor will do just as well, as “The difference between Despair” well shows:

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –

Here Dickinson explores two emotions or moods that one would not have expected to find inside her garden, given her introduction. Despair is likened to the instant of a wreck, fear to the aftermath. Despair is short but tumultuous: cracking timber, the boat being sucked downward, the knowledge of impending death. But fear is quite different. It is placid: the surface is smooth again, there is contentment. It is almost as if one is not even alive, is a bust. Fear knows it cannot see, and does not despair of the fact. It is a sort of grim determination.

We have returned to the image of being at sea and not in it. But if this is so, then what we are seeing is the outcome of the voyage begun with such hopes of reaching shore. Despair and the wreck are ineluctable, and so too the aftermath of fear. Any such voyage will end this way, sucked into life, and no longer heading toward eternity. And then comes fear. Like in her garden, there is a tranquility, but now it is not the tranquility that comes with an endless spring, rather it is a grim determination and contentment. The optimism has vanished.

These two poems illustrate but part of the overall shift in Dickinson’s work from these two early poems. They illustrate what breaks the optimism of those poems. But I do not mean to suggest that Dickinson’s poetry is a poetry of despair. Her quest for eternity is not halted but changed: eternity shifts from being something at the end of life to something found within life, with all its struggle and horror. The result is not optimism—grim determination may well capture it—but I do not feel anything is lost. What is gained is richer, if more terrible—richer because it is more terrible.

These poems also illustrate the power of metaphors, for Dickinson. Dickinson, in those two early poems, brings in metaphors in a youthful, naïve way. She models the inner world on the outer, with its change of seasons and its sunsets, and she models life as a voyage at sea. She does so in an optimistic spirit, and there is a beauty in that. But once she has set down these metaphors they take on a life of their own, and she is led down paths she did not anticipate. The inner world, modeled against the outer, increasingly ceases to represent a happier version of the outer and a bulwark against its vicissitudes—it comes to mirror it. And the voyage at sea exposes Dickinson to the possibility and ineluctability of wrecks. She, in her optimism, overlooked these possibilities, but now she must confront them.

This illustrates, then, the danger of writing an introduction before the work is completed. Dickinson makes promises she cannot fulfill, raises issues with which she must continually struggle and which continually defy her initial optimism. The advice to write the introduction last is of the highest prudence. But there is something poetic about the introduction written at the beginning, and not simply placed there after the fact.

The difference stems from the difference in perspective that each necessarily takes. The introduction written last is a view from above, the view of a spectator surveying the completed work. That the work is her own is important, but the introduction serves only to state her accomplishments, and hardly to contribute to them. The introduction written first, by contrast, is inherently active, is a view from within. It contributes to the project it attempts to introduce, by setting out—and not just describing—paths that will be followed. Of course, these descriptions end up false, but that does not make the description any less valuable. As the example of Dickinson shows, these naïve, youthful, optimistic introductions raise complications that cannot be foreseen, but the struggle with these complications may yield unforeseen fruit. The falseness of the description arises precisely because it raises issues beyond its control, introduces problems that elude its grasp—the very sources of its value.

But perhaps Dickinson captured the difference best. An introduction written at the end is on firm land, “ashore at last”. An introduction written first is, by contrast, at sea, lost, with no land in sight, excepting what is hallucinated. Introductions from above may yield the eternity of a destination reached, but introductions from within offer the eternity of endless beginning and struggle—a more terrible, but for that very reason richer, eternity.


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